COLOMBIA – The COVID-19 pandemic has put Latin America’s biotech sector under extreme pressure and highlighted flaws in the ecosystem throughout the region, not the least of which is a lack of viable networks to facilitate cooperation.
“I’ve been following what the biotech ecosystem is saying in the region during the last few months, from different perspectives: from the government, from enterprises and from the academy,” Daniel Dominguez, co-founder of Mexico’s AllBiotech, told BioWorld. “And perhaps this is not a novelty, but all I see, are complaints from all sectors.”
With headquarters in Santiago, Chile and Mexico City, AllBiotech is a Latin American biotechnology network that supports biotech entrepreneurs. One of the key challenges in the region is that nobody really has a clear idea of the capabilities and capacity of any particular country or player.
“I’m not sure if we would be able to articulate capacities, not only at national levels but at a regional level,” said Dominguez.
That lack of mutual understanding has not made it easier for countries in the region to fight off the pandemic, which is having a devastating impact in some countries.
Brazil, where the federal government has opposed putting in place serious measures and has had three health ministers in as many months, surpassed 645,000 cases of COVID-19 and 35,000 deaths. Peru, with a population of just 33 million, has more than 241,000 cases and more than 7,200 deaths. Chile’s 18 million people have been hit by more than 185,000 cases, and Mexico has reported more than 155,000, although the number could be much higher. Argentina has had fewer cases, but the cost has been dire as the country effectively shut down its borders and much of its economy.
For all that impact, the region’s biotechnology sector is doing little to fight the virus, and that lack of projects has underscored how weak the biotech sector is. A handful of unlinked and independent projects are happening but they are happening independently of each other, suggesting there isn’t a strong biotech network.
A region with more than 652 million people and full of middle income countries is home to a tiny fraction of the hundreds of COVID-19 vaccine or drug projects underway around the world. There are just six different biotech projects worth noting in Latin America at the moment to address COVID-19, either in search of a vaccine or a drug for the novel coronavirus. None of them are close to getting into clinical trials.
“In Mexico and in Latin America, it has been like shooting in the air to see where you hit. We are aiming to eliminate the coronavirus without having the sight fixed,” said Dominguez.
Two of the vaccine projects are happening in Mexico, at the Autonomous University of Queretaro and at the Autonomous National University of Mexico. Two other vaccine projects are underway at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and a fourth team is working in Argentina on developing antibodies from llamas in Argentina.
“We are putting the brakes on cooperation. Despite it being true that we were not ready for this [COVID-19], none of our countries has a remote chance of developing all the needed technologies such as a vaccine, or a treatment to cope with the pandemic,” said Dominguez. “We do have some capacity at the industry level, at the academy and at governments and, together, we would have the strength of a developed country, to say the least.”
BIO Latin America canceled
Any nascent cooperation or potential for a regional biotech network were put paid this year as the pandemic emerged and spread.
A notable example was the cancellation of the BIO Latin America Conference, the one key regional conference, that was scheduled to take place in Brazil in September. Not even a virtual event is being held this year.
“In a scenario full of uncertainty, we made this decision based on the data we have today and based on the responsibility we have with an entire community,” said the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) in a statement. “By making this decision, we hope to minimize the negative impacts of this crisis.
“We are experiencing one of the most complicated moments in the world’s history. With the occurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic, our lives have changed in ways we could have never expected,” BIO explained.
The event has gained some traction over the past six years. Last year, it brought together 676 attendees from 353 companies, including Dominguez.
“There was some sort of evolution in the event during the past few years, and I observed an improvement of the event, which was helping to the build-up of a more robust regional biotech ecosystem,” said Dominguez.
That progress is likely to be undone along with any progress on cooperation in the sector as a whole.
Some, like Adriana Durán, a compliance and regulatory affairs head at Cavelier Abogados, a law firm in Colombia, think that there is not much time now for conferences or events or any discussion that is not related to COVID-19.
“Unfortunately, as long as the sector does not have something to offer as a solution to the crisis, it will continue to be temporarily set aside,” Durán, who attended the 2019 edition of BIO Latin America, told BioWorld. “Regulatory agencies are fully focused on the emergency and on the products that could serve it.”